Waving goodbye to your child is hard but there are ways to cope, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
There are times during parenthood when mums and dads fantasise about their child finally leaving home; perhaps it’s during the infancy stage after a series of sleepless nights, or when their stroppy teenager refuses to speak to them. It’s normal and healthy to want a break from the school run, making dinners, and sewing together uniforms. Despite the benefits of being free from these daily responsibilities, many parents struggle when their only or last child moves out from the family home.
The emotions parents have are usually mixed. They may feel proud that their child is living independently in college or in their own house, but at the same time may experience a sense of loss or loneliness.
This phenomenon is known as empty nest syndrome – a reference to the difficulties involved when your final child eventually flies from the nest. While both parents can be affected by it, mothers tend to experience it more viscerally as they have been viewed as the primary caregivers until recently.
“It’s not the same for everyone – it’s not standard that everybody would experience empty nest syndrome. It’s a feeling of grief and loneliness when their children leave home for the first time,” well-known psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy explains.
“Now that could be when they go to live on their own or attend college. It’s not a clinical condition.”
The feelings of isolation and loss are not abnormal given how disruptive a child leaving home can be. Parents often see their sole purpose as properly raising their children to become healthy and mature young adults. When being a caregiver is a key part of your identity, it can be existentially troubling to cope with the disappearance of this role. When your routine and meaning is wrapped around the day-to-day life of your child, it can be difficult to know where to turn to when they’re no longer around.
Indeed, only last year, famous chef Gordon Ramsay spoke about how emotionally demanding it was to drop his twin children off at university, describing himself as “a mess”. So, while parents are happy that their children are now leading their own lives, they can also feel heart-broken that this period of their life is over.
“People want their children to go off and lead independent lives yet people can feel sad when they leave. It’s certainly a transitional period in life, around loneliness and loss. It’s a sort of bittersweet time really, certainly emotionally challenging for some,” Dr Murphy says.
“It’s characterised by sadness loss and loneliness. There may be a sense of loss in purpose and meaning in your life. Some parents can be smiling happy that the kids are out the door, and others it’s just more challenging.”
The symptoms of empty nest syndrome vary from person to person, but generally parents experience sadness, depression, stress, anxiety and a loss of identity. These emotions may be heightened in single-parents households where there is no longer anybody in the home once the final child leaves.
For Dr Murphy, the syndrome “in the main amplifies loneliness” and this has a direct impact on one’s well-being. As social beings, we require human interaction and when this is cut off the effects can be devastating. Just as we need food and water to survive, we also need healthy communication with others.
“When we are hungry we get a physical signal to eat and when we are thirsty we get a signal to drink, and when we’re lonely, it’s our signal for human connection.”
Alongside these emotions of loss and isolation, parents also wonder whether they raised their kids to the best of their ability and may even feel guilt about bad decisions they made as their child was growing up. All in all, empty nest syndrome has a negative impact on a parent’s mental health which can result in more severe issues if not addressed.
There may be a temptation to dissuade your child from leaving home in order to avoid this turmoil. However, this would be a very unhealthy move and stunt your own child’s growth. Children need to mature into young adults without overbearing parents making all of the calls or emotionally blackmailing them into staying at home. In psychology this is known as the ‘Devouring Mother’ archetype, and despite the feminine title, it also applies to men. This is a parent who derives all worth and meaning from their child, smothering them with excess love and protection, ultimately stunting their child’s development and ability to live apart from them. Rather than suffocating your child with affection, it’s vital that the parent lets go despite the fears they have.
In this vein, empty nest syndrome cannot be solved by latching onto the hope that your child will return home someday. Instead, parents must accept that leaving one’s mother and father is a natural part of life. In this way, both you and your child will have a much healthier relationship instead of one predicated upon co-dependency.
While empty nest syndrome is hard to prevent, there are plenty of ways to cope with it.
Dr Murphy says that parents often focus on the negatives of a child leaving home, whereas it’s possible to have a much more positive outlook.”
Firstly and most importantly, it’s paramount that parents accept the fact that their children have moved away. Acceptance will discourage any delusion about a child’s return. Once they have made this acknowledgement, then parents can begin to make practical differences to their own lives without being held down by the emotional weight.
Many parents decide to take up a new hobby, perhaps one they’ve always wanted to pursue but never had the time. By learning a new skill, you create purpose by having a goal in mind that you want to reach. Age-dependent, some parents re-enter the workforce to establish a daily routine and make a difference to people’s lives. For those who are really struggling with the transition, it’s recommended to talk to somebody your trust, like a family member, friend or counsellor. By speaking your thoughts out loud in an understanding and empathetic environment, you can clear you head and even hear some helpful advice.
Dr Murphy says that parents often focus on the negatives of a child leaving home, whereas it’s possible to have a much more positive outlook.
“Coping is maybe about reflecting more on how you’ve successfully parented your child to be independent in the world and focus more on the skills you’ve developed rather than the loss you’re experiencing.”
By recognising that you have fulfilled your role as a parent, you can accept that this particular part of your life is over and it’s now time to pursue a new venture.
Of course, just because your child has left home, this doesn’t automatically mean you will no longer see or hear from them. The technological revolution means that a friendly face is only a click away, meaning you can maintain a strong relationship with your child over texts and voice/video calls. The dynamic of this bond may shift substantially as your child meets new people and learns to live apart from you. Perhaps they may become more distant or the opposite may occur. Whatever happens, don’t be a stranger and always be an open ear.
Although it’s not spoken about as often as it should be, empty nest syndrome deeply impact parents across the globe and should be treated seriously. By taking the right steps to address it, parents can overcome this pervasive sense of loss and rekindle their own identity.